The Working Catholic: Lady Liberty
by Bill Droel
The primary symbol of our country is our flag, the “stars and stripes.” Closely connected to our flag is the song Star-Spangled Banner, based on an 1814 poem by Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779-1843). It is customary to stand and doff one’s cap when our anthem is performed at the beginning of every sporting event. There is, by the way, no obligatory rubric about other songs at the ballpark. America the Beautiful, a 1910 tune by Katherine Bates and Samuel Ward, is not our national anthem, though some fans seem to think it is. Nor is there any compulsory ritual around the seventh inning song about Katie Casey, produced in 1908 by Jack Norwoth and Albert Von Tilzer. Likewise, fans can do and think what they like when the public address system blares out the 1978 song by Victor Willis and Jacques Morali, YMCA… So too in Boston with the 1969 song by Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline.
Our country’s second most important symbol is the Statue of Liberty. Whereas the U.S. flag is revered mostly by U.S. residents and those of us serving or working overseas, the “Statue of Liberty is the world’s most universally recognized symbol,” writes Steve Fraser in Class Matters (Yale University Press, 2018). What does it symbolize? “Above all, Lady Liberty is thought of as the patron saint of hard-pressed immigrants.” Our statue in the Upper New York Bay stands for “an uplifting promissory note.”
The statue has a conflicted history and was not always associated with immigrants, Fraser recounts, as does Tyler Anbinder in his massive City of Dreams (Houghton, Mifflin, 2016).
It was 1865 when Edouard Rene de Laboulaye (1811-1883) first proposed a gift from his fellow French citizens to the citizens of the U.S. in recognition of our country’s extension of liberty to former slaves. His project went slowly. Frederic Bartholdi (1834-1904), a sculptor, joined the effort. The original completion date having past, the goal then became delivery to the U.S. for the 100th anniversary of our independence. As the days went by, the theme for the proposed statue came to include a beacon of liberty to those still under regressive or colonial governments. The motivation of the French committee, writes Fraser, was “to inspire and memorialize their dedication to a stable, middle-class society.” It was not so much to have “a monument to the nation that had pioneered in inventing [liberty],” to the U.S. The premise was that both France and the U.S. “cherished learning, enterprise, peaceable commerce and republican liberties.”
No matter the theme, the project remained in low gear. Finally in 1880 the French committee delivered the statue in crates to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The statue’s eventual location in New York Harbor was assumed, but because the French committee was broke the U.S. was responsible for building a pedestal. Four government entities said no to an allocation for the project. Likewise, several wealthy people here declined to donate.
A stateside committee held a fundraiser; an auction of original paintings and literary pieces. It was a bust; only $1,500 was raised. One item in the November 1883 auction was well received: The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).
It looked like the statue might forever be warehoused in crates. But in March 1885 Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), a Hungarian immigrant, ridiculed the wealthy in his newspaper and called upon working families to send along their nickels. The common people responded; the pedestal was built; a dedication was held in October 1886. Of note: No mention of Lazarus, of her poem or of immigration was made at that ceremony. Thus for many years the statue was a symbol mostly for French-U.S. friendship and vaguely for liberty as an exportable ideal.
The common people enter the story once again. In 1903 friends of Lazarus had the 14-line The New Colossus inscribed on a bronze plaque and with permission installed it inside the statue, on the second-floor landing. The theme of welcome to immigrants, especially the thousands who arrive in this harbor, was making a slow comeback. In 1945 the poem was moved to the main entrance of Lady Liberty. It was then, Fraser writes, that “the Statue of Liberty became the symbol we have assumed it always was.” The statue, the famous poem, Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island are now basically one, and together are firmly associated with our country’s grand experiment in pluralism, with the compassion of our citizens and with the gratitude nearly all of us feel for the opportunities that this great country gave our ancestors.
New York City is inexhaustible. But all visitors and residents need to find the Liberty Island/Ellis Island ferry in Battery Park at the bottom of Manhattan. Here’s one way to reflect on what your tour means: Look to the bow and see our country’s story of “huddled masses” and then look to the stern and see the great skyscrapers of finance. Fraser’s book can add to that reflection because he examines the tension between bow and stern, the give-and-take of our American Dream. The subtitle of Anbinder’s book is The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. It too examines the reality of give-and-take.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) a free newsletter about faith and work.